A Podcast Listener's Guide to the 2016 Election
The best audio sources to get through the next few days
I’m an avid podcast listener and have been unable to stop myself from devouring pods related to the election. In many ways, though, podcasts are the perfect counterbalance to other media. They’re chiller than the hot-take industrial complex, or the garbage fires happening in your Facebook feed. They’re less anxiety-inducing than the late-night comedy harangues and the 24-hour cable-news surrogate-fest. And for whatever reason, the sound of humans telling stories about themselves and how they see the world tends to be enriching, even if their perspectives or experiences differ from mine.
So if you have some time this weekend that you want to spend doing chores around the house, or going on a long walk, or just lying in bed in your PJs with some instant oatmeal, headphones, and a sleep mask (was that too specific?), here are my recommendations for some fascinating hours of listening, closely or loosely related to the 2016 election. (If you have recommendations to add to this list, please email them our way! I’ll update this post with any new discoveries.)
The Ezra Klein Show
Time required: ~75 minutes per episode, 40+ episodes
This podcast is my top recommendation on this list. Klein's ideological leanings aren’t a secret (hint: I’m fairly certain he’s voting for Hillary Clinton, who was a guest). But he and his team have done an incredible job of pulling together a demographically diverse cast of fascinating interviewees from all across the ideological spectrum. The best episodes of the show (and the best podcasts on this list, generally) depart from whatever’s leading the news that week and stay away from punditry. Instead, they delve into the lives and experiences of the guests, slowly unwinding each interviewee’s perspectives on our collective political circumstances and how those came about.
I’m biased, of course, but the single greatest dissection of the 2016 presidential race I’ve heard happens in a conversation between Klein and The Atlantic’s own Molly Ball. Klein calls it the best conversation he’s had about the election. So that might be the place to start. Not every interview is likely to satisfy. If I were picking and choosing, I’d skip the interviews with Grover Norquist, Arianna Huffington, Trevor Noah, Neera Tanden, and Robert Reich (which isn’t a criticism of any of them or of Klein, who’s gotten better and better as an interviewer). I’d move the interviews with Heather McGhee, Yuval Levin, Tyler Cowen (who interviews Klein, rather than vice-versa), Alice Rivlin, Cory Booker, and Arlie Hochschild to the top of my list, all for different reasons.
Us and Them: “A Confederate Reckoning” and “Islamophobia"
Time required: 70 minutes
The latest season of this West Virginia Public Broadcasting podcast ended in May, and each of these two episodes was released in 2015, but the stories feel deeply relevant to this election cycle. In “A Confederate Reckoning,” two American foreign correspondents based in Nairobi, Kenya, fly to Louisiana to explore the lingering remnants of racial disunity. And in “Islamophobia,” the podcast’s host Trey Kay visits a local mosque and tries to bring a friend along. Neither story is likely to leave you feeling hopeful about our deepest divides. Both are bracing and honest examinations of where those divides manifest.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (audiobook)
Time required: 7 hours
This book has been widely recommended, often as a deep look at the lives and perspectives of poor, white Americans. I think that both oversells and undersells what this book actually is, which is a personal history of one man (J.D. Vance), the place and the people he came from, and the journey he found himself embarking on. The book’s biggest payoff comes in its closing moments, hours after a mix of rollicking, loving, and often difficult stories about Vance's forebears and his family. Having walked his listeners through that world, having talked about the life-changing experience of becoming a Marine, he flips the lens late in the book, and starts telling his people about the world he came to discover: Yale Law School, San Francisco, and the strange conventions and customs of the moneyed elite. The audiobook version is a terrific way to experience it; Vance is an excellent narrator of his story.
(If you do want to listen to some broader, more scholarly explorations of white American identity, I’d recommend Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, both also available as audiobooks.*)
This American Life: “Will I Know Anyone At This Party?"
Time required: 1 hour
Don’t be fooled by the jolly musical opener sung by Neil Patrick Harris. The core of this episode is the story of a rift in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where a faction of residents are dismayed by a recent influx of immigration, and the sense they’re losing their place in the city. As usual, Zoe Chace’s excellent reporting elicits a rare candor, even from folks prone to speaking in euphemisms. And that’s before a tragedy takes the story one notch deeper.
Time required: ~60 minutes per episode
To hear Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton laugh is to hear the sound of sunlight. They are friends with a gorgeous rapport, so even when they delve into dark corners with their guests, it’s an easy and comfortable listen. Like Klein, they’re up-front about their ideological priors (hint: Hillary Clinton and Valerie Jarrett were both guests), so the conversations are typically bound to the vast political space often called “the left.” But most of their episodes and interviews don’t map neatly to America’s contentious political divides; they range into subjects like mental wellness, the boundaries of comedy, and of course, how President Obama smells. Eps to start with: The Atlantic’s own Ta-Nehisi Coates, Audie Cornish, David Simon, Shani Hilton.
Time required: ~60 minutes per episode
Dan Carlin calls his show “politically Martian,” which is about right. You could fault Carlin for engaging in a merciless critique of modern politics without ever quite articulating how he’d fix it. But the critique is the main event, because it’s almost always surprising, rooted as it is in Carlin’s rich and idiosyncratic interpretation of political history (which plays itself out both in Common Sense and in Carlin’s other podcast, “Hardcore History”). Because it’s often indexed to current events, the episodes might feel weird if you haven’t been listening in real-time. The best part of the show, though, is that the episodes feel weird if you do listen in real-time. After each listen, I always find myself wondering if I’m paying too much attention to the wrong things. Eps to start with: “Disengaging the lizard brain,” “A bodyguard of lies,” and “Revenge of the gangrenous finger."
Time required: ~20-30 minutes per episode
Time required: ~60 minutes per episode
It’s easy to stereotype these as similar shows with an economic lens, so I hesitate to lump them together. But precisely because they can seem pretty similar, it’s worth juxtaposing what they each do well. Freakonomics is a fun, interview-driven show that usually provides a few counterintuitive perspectives on a provocative, big-think question, such as whether the U.S. presidency is a dictatorship. Planet Money is an equally fun, sound-rich, reporting-driven show that shrinks huge, complex systems, such as the global economy, down to human scale. I listen to Freakonomics to question things I think I know. I listen to Planet Money to understand things I know I don’t. Eps to start with, from Freakonomics: “Ten ideas to make politics less rotten,” "Ten signs you might be a libertarian,” "How much does the U.S. presidency matter?” And from Planet Money: “The no-brainer economic platform,” “Our fake candidate meets the people,” and “Trade show."
On the Media
Time required: 50 minutes per episode, hundreds of episodes
Don’t believe the title. This show is often about much more than “the media” as one might typically understand it. This season, for example, Brooke Gladstone has reported a tremendous series on poverty in the U.S., a subject that feels to me as though it hasn’t really made an appearance in presidential politics since the 2008 primaries. (Presidential candidates love to talk about that middle class, though.) Really, I think of this as a show about how to process everything I hear—when to be skeptical, where to find perspectives I’m missing, how to understand the codes of political language in the U.S. And as both an editor and consumer of coverage, I find OTM’s breaking news handbooks invaluable. Eps to start with: “Personal responsibility,” “After the facts,” and “The system is rigged."
Time required: 1 hour per episode
Time required: ~30 minutes per episode
Both of these can be dry and droning. Both of them are also deeply insightful, often absorbing reminders of the peculiar ways in which history can rhyme, and of the forgotten alleyways of American political life. Backstory Radio is a more conventional radio show; every episode features a few different segments on a different theme. Whistlestop is John Dickerson waxing nerdy about major presidential campaign stories of yesteryear. (After the success of the podcast, Dickerson wrote a book on the same theme, and it has an audiobook version, but I haven’t listened.) Listen long enough to either, and you might come to appreciate their calm, dry tone. Don’t panic, the hosts suggest. Crazier things have happened before, and yet here we still are. Eps to start with, from Backstory: “Islam and the United States,” “You’ve come a long way,” and “The GOP.” From Whistlestop: “Goldwater vs. Fact magazine,” “Andrew Jackson: The Dangerous Candidate,” and “Stand Up for America."
Each of these shows offers a slightly different spin on news from the 2016 election, so the one you come to like most probably depends somewhat on your sensibility. (I listen to all five because I have a problem.) Because they’re so tied to the news, I omit recommendations for three of the five.
Time required: ~20 minutes per episode
If you like James Fallows’s Donald Trump time capsule—a moment-to-moment catalogue of the candidate’s departures from American political norms—you’ll probably appreciate Trumpcast, Jacob Weisberg’s audio diary of Trump’s candidacy. This is probably the most nakedly partisan podcast on my list, although the partisanship on display tends to be much more anti-Trump than pro-Clinton. Because of the show’s tight focus on Trump, however, it winds up being a much more thorough, if unloving, exploration of the candidate than almost anything else on offer. Weisberg speaks about the nature and portents of Trump’s campaign with reporters covering it, Trump’s ghostwriter, his supporters and surrogates, the man who started his Twitter account, journalists outside the U.S., and many, many others. Nearly every episode begins with the candidate’s own words on Twitter, read by the suddenly very busy Trump impersonator John D. Domenico, a segment that could be an entire podcast of its own. Because of the partisan nature of the show, each of my recommendations includes a conversation with a Trump supporter: “My mom’s voting for him,” “Where’s my bailout?” and “The talented Mr. Miller.” (Months after “Where’s my bailout?” was released, the Trump supporter interviewed in the episode changed his mind about the candidate and spoke with Weisberg a second time.)
Time required: ~30-40 minutes per episode
NPR’s my alma mater, so I’m predisposed to love the NPR Politics podcast. And I do! The show is probably the least partisan of the bunch, because the roundtable almost exclusively features NPR reporters and editors covering the campaigns or steering coverage, while other shows tend to cycle in columnists or others who offer commentary on the election. Its best asset is the variety of the journalists who participate. If you want to hear unvarnished reporting and analysis from the campaign trail, high-quality production, and a light, jokey rapport from a motley band of journalists, you’ll enjoy this.
Time required: ~35 minutes per episode
The New York Times election podcast, The Run-Up, is similar in format to Trumpcast, with a solo host and a different guest lineup each week, but a broader range of topics. Its host is Michael Barbaro, a reporter who’s been at the center of the Times’s efforts to navigate how to adjust its coverage conventions in light of the very unconventional campaign of Trump, which feels like an implicit subject of the podcast many weeks. The best place to start might be Barbaro’s two-part dive into hours of tape of Trump being interviewed for his 2015 biography.
Time required: ~30 minutes per episode
The FiveThirtyEight podcast is the audio manifestation of Nate Silver’s polling-obsessed site, which operates under the aegis of ESPN. Silver, along with the site’s editor Jody Avirgan, “whiz kid Harry Enten,” and the political writer Clare Malone, refracts each week’s campaign news through the lens of the team’s election forecasts. Among the show’s charms is the way Silver and Enten anthropomorphize their two lovingly crafted forecasting models, “Polls-Only” and “Polls-Plus.” (As Election Day draws closer, and the two models converge toward irrelevance, one can sometimes hear a note of preemptive mourning in Silver’s and Enten’s comments. I sometimes imagine Silver dialing up Polls-Only months after it’s put to rest, feeding it simulated data just to watch it sit up and dance one more time.) Avirgan and Malone provide the anecdotal and reportorial ballast to the empirical wonkery of their counterparts. This might be the least re-listenable show after the election’s done, purely because the results will be known. But I may still revisit it, if only to relive those halcyon days with Polls-Plus.
Slate’s Political Gabfest
Time required: ~1 hour per episode
The most venerable podcast of this set, Slate’s politics show thrives on the rapport of its three regular hosts—David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson. Bazelon bring the lens of a magazine writer with years of experience covering the courts, Dickerson brings his encyclopedic political knowledge and reporting, and Plotz keeps the show moving, peppering each segment with provocative questions, arguments, and jokes. While Dickerson preserves a studied neutrality (in addition to hosting this show and Whistlestop, he also hosts CBS’s Face the Nation), the show has a clear liberal lean. If that doesn’t dissuade you, the election is as good a hook as any to try it out.
* This article originally misnamed the author of White Trash, who is Nancy Isenberg, not Isenkoff. We regret the error.